JPH Editorial: What is This Field Called Philosophy of History?

Sometimes philosophy of history is called a ‘field,’ comparable to other ‘fields’ like history, sociology or biology. At other times it is linked with theory of history, and these two are understood to form a ‘field’ together. But is it justified to talk about a field in either of these cases?

Herman Paul considers this question in his assessment of philosophy of history after Hayden White. He suggests that it might be better to talk about a network, in which Hayden White occupies a special position. One reason why the terms ‘field’ or ‘discipline’ may seem ill-fitting is that there is no clear core literature and no set of core problems in philosophy of history.

Looking at the contents of this issue and the diversity of all the extremely interesting papers in it seems to support this conclusion. Nuno Luis Madureira writes about hyperfactuals, which exist both in the factual and counterfactual course of events. David James investigates the role of practical necessity in Kant’s essay Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim. Bennett Gilbert studies the philosophical and religious ideas of Simone Weil and their significance for the theory of history and historiography. Rodrigo Díaz-Maldonado suggests in his essay that Frank Ankersmit’s notion of historical experience should be conceived as a mode of comprehension. Arthur Alfaix Assis focuses on Cicero’s first law of history that “the historian must not dare to tell any falsehood” and argues for a refreshed notion of historical objectivity. Finally, John H. Zammito reviews Robert Doran’s The Theory of the Sublime from Longinus to Kant in his review article. I encourage everyone to delve into the reasonings and thought-provoking philosophical views of these essays!

Perhaps we might say that there is no recognizable paradigm in philosophy of history even if there are recurrent problems, concepts and certain almost canonical figures, which function as starting points for the deconstructions and reconstructions of philosophical positions. But is this any different anywhere else in the humanities? Thomas Kuhn famously denied that the humanities and social sciences possess paradigms in the sense of the natural sciences, which are organized around a steady set of problems, theories, metaphysical presuppositions and theoretical and tangible working practices. There is so much more room to manoeuvre in the humanities.

It is naturally a good question whether philosophy of history, or any other humanistic ‘field,’ should standardize its problems and practices. Should it become more professional and formulate a paradigm? Should it rather avoid becoming ‘more professional’ and retain its eclecticism? What is its function as a ‘discipline’? White would have undoubtedly spoken in favour of diversity in philosophy of history as well. Or would he, provided that he had formulated his own favoured version of practicing it?

One final note is in order. There is very little technical jargon which would make it difficult, or even impossible, for outsiders to read and understand papers in philosophy of history. This state of affairs would seem to make philosophy of history particularly well-disposed to have a visible and active role in cultural arenas outside the academia. However, it does not seem to have this kind of role currently.

One recent exception is worth mentioning though. The New York Times recently published an interesting and intriguing piece entitled “How to Draw History” (19 November 2018). It invited readers to outline their own timelines to make history comprehensible comparable to schemes like linear, circular, loop theory, dialectics, time bang and spiral. It is encouraging that the readers of The New York Times are assumed to be interested in pondering where history is heading in the form of the good old speculative philosophy of history. On the other hand, is this the only way in which philosophy of history should be known in our societies? What could be the other ways and topics to reach out?

Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen


This text has previously been published as an editorial in the Journal of the Philosophy of History


Last updated: 23.4.2020